Why serve again?
Why? Why commit to being poor for another whole year? Why sleep in a mosquito net and shat in latrines and boil your water when you could spend your days hanging out in the Bay Area drinking craft cocktails, laying in bed on the internet, and getting naked with cute hipster girls? Great fucking questions. Here are a few responses.
1. Unfinished business
When people ask me about my Peace Corps experience – my friends, roommates, coworkers, and especially job interviewers, I always have a few canned responses ready in soundbite form which make the most difficult, ambiguous, and absurd two years of my life sound like a nice, humble, and neatly wrapped chapter out of JFK’s Peace Corps handbook. Nothing I ever say about my experience is untrue, but I never tell the whole story. Naturally, it’s impossible to. And people whom I have tried to tell the whole story to, who visited me in my village, still tell me that I had a productive two years, built great friendships, did positive work, and “helped” a community.
But I hate these kinds of stories and they make me feel disingenuous. In the end I did pretty much what I was expected to do as a volunteer, but for some reason I felt I didn’t do right by the folks in my community. I did a few things right, a whole lot of things wrong, and despite my best intentions I can’t say I left Mogue any better than I found it. And it has nothing to do with the fact that they’re “poor” people and “need” my “help.” It’s beyond silly to think of it in those terms. But there are people in that village who were wonderful and open and allowed me to live there for two years, treated me nicer than I deserve, and at the end of the day I can’t honestly say I returned the favor. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why I felt like I didn’t. If I wanted, I could blame it on a laundry list of my own deficiencies, on lack of support from fellow volunteers and staff, on any number of different conflicting development theories, or on the fact that I just wasn’t ready and had no idea what I was doing there. It’s not a question anyone has the answer to, and the question itself is flawed.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that a Peace Corps volunteer is ever responsible for the transformation of a community. Far from it. No Peace Corps volunteer should bring that expectation with them. In fact, when I received my invitation to serve in Panama I promised myself that it was going to be first and foremost about learning and experiencing, and if I could manage to make a tiny positive impact, well then I would. I most certainly nailed that first objective. Learning? Experience? Check.
But there’s a certain irony that comes with this which is that only at the very end of my two years of service did I feel like I had learned from enough of my mistakes and gained enough experience to maybe beging to do effective Peace Corps work. The idea of returning to PC and starting from scratch had always occurred to me, but I couldn’t handle of doing another two years of general PC service. I wanted something more focused, more specific, something tangible to put my energies into.
When I received an email about a Peace Corps Response position in the gorgeous mountains of Guatemala working with rural Mayan communities on evaluating an anti-malnutrition program, it seemed perfectly tailored. It was the opportunity I had been waiting for to go back and do things right.
2. What’s different?
I know this kid named Toso who is a perpetual Peace Corps volunteer. He has probably spent 5 years of his life as a PC volunteer, more than I’ve ever heard of anyone doing. So when I asked him if he thought I should take this Peace Corps Response position, I naturally expected him to say yes. His response?
I think his point was that he had went and gotten a master’s degree in health education or something like that before returning. What made me more qualified now than the first time around, he asked me. It’s a good question. Peace Corps Response looks for people with professional work experience directly applicable to the project in question. And the project in question (which you can read more about here) in this case is in monitoring and evaluation. It is essentially very similar to what I have been doing at my current job with Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment, applied to a rural setting. At Women’s Initiative I have been engaged in the entire process of collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data in order to produce informative reports and take-aways for staff to improve our program and services. Granted, I will only have 6 months of this under my belt. But I’m pretty seguro that between that experience, my natural intellectual curiosity and knack for research and analytics, and my lessons learned from Peace Corps Service 1.0, I’m a pretty strong candidate for this work. It’s a more focused assignment than the first time around. Again, I encourage you to read more about the project here.
3. More questions than answers
I like the nature of this assignment. It’s less about “helping people” than going in and trying to figure things out, with the end result hopefully a positive one. One way in which my first round of service changed me is that it was extraordinarily humbling. Many young volunteers going into the Peace Corps straight from college, full of rich ideas unearthed from stimulating encounters with professors, books, and other students. Whether or not most want to admit it, there’s a part of each PC volunteer that thinks they have the answers before they even land in their country of service. Allow me to sum up in this MSPaint graph:
The circle represents where I fell on this spectrum for most of my service. It should actually be probably a much bigger circle, as my attitudes oscillated all over the map over the course of two years. Whatever. I put myself more on the know-it-all end of the spectrum because for one reason or another I found myself consistently resistant to learn from the methods and experience of the Peace Corps post in Panama.
I can only hope that I now can better appreciate the importance of going in with less preconceptions, a more open mind, better appreciate the idea of approaching PC work with more questions than answers. Yet at the same time balancing that with actually having a small but crucial degree of perspective, experience, and valuable skills to offer. And this position is all about that. We will (supposedly) be part of making sure this project has robust and sensical systems to evaluate whether a major initiative by USAID and the Guatemalan government is/will be effective in mitigating the child malnutrition rate, which is currently at 49.8%. We’re not going in with all the answers, we’re going in with questions. This is a huge motivator for me.
P.S. If you’re really curious, you can see my job description here.
4. Introduction to Global Public Health 101
In 2004, at the age of 19, I went running for the first time. It was something totally new for me, and I barely made it two blocks before I collapsed on the sidewalk. But, it grew on me, and as it became more and more a regular thing I became more and more curious about how the body worked. So on a whim I took first semester Anatomy and Physiology at the community college I was attending, as an elective. That’s how it all began. From then on I was fascinated by biology, the inner workings of the human body and all the scientific knowledge we have produced about the history of life on planet Earth. When I went on to study anthropology as a major, I focused on biological anthropology, human evolution, medical anthropology, and the social and cultural contexts of human health and disease. I was very content, I had found my love affair with an endlessly fascinating academic discipline.
However, in all these years, I have found myself unable to engage in this as fully as I have wanted to. My degree is in anthropology, my first Peace Corps assignment was in teaching English and “economic development,” my current job is at a small business development and women’s empowerment non-profit. I know what I’m intellectually passionate about, I know that I want to be in the field of medicine and/or public health. Yet I’m 28 years old and the only relevant bullet point on my resume is several months of volunteering 10 hours a week in a clinic as a medical translator.
While I enjoy my current job, am appreciated by my boss and coworkers, and am afforded awesome flexibility and opportunities, this Peace Corps Response project is an ideal opportunity to engage in studying the causes, effects, and possible solutions related to the nutritional status and overall health of women and children living in poverty. It’s the transition I’ve been looking for.
5. It feels right
I’m not sure I need to qualify this statement. I’ve been back from Panama for a full year now, and I don’t like how it feels to be back this long. All the transformation I experienced overseas has started to reverse itself, and I’ve started to settle back in to plain ol’ American life. It’s not all bad, but my life in California is perpetually uninspiring, and I find myself in pretty low states of physical and mental health. Nothing I do here compares to how thrilling it is to be culturally, geographically, and linguistically immersed in those strange locations beyond the looking glass. When I started looking at the blogs of PCVs working in the indigenous communities, the little anthropology undergraduate inside me started whimpering like a doe-eyed, sad little puppy. So, I’m going with my gut on this one. I think this is what the young folks would refer to as “yolo.” Anyways, Wish me luck.